One of the Constitutional limitations on criminal law is the prohibition of ex post facto laws. By definition, ex post facto law is the law passed after the occurrence of an event, punishing the conduct that was not criminal when committed. The ex post facto clause forbids such laws since they limit criminal law as a result of improper legislative interference in the judicial law, the excessive power of federal and state legislatures, and acts of injustice. The prohibition of ex post facto laws protect the rights of citizens and prevents possible vindictive acts. Moreover, there is no doubt that citizens should be aware of all the active laws and punishments for them.
The principal public policy reason for limiting ex post facto laws is that people need to know what kind of behavior is lawful and what is unlawful. Citizens should be aware of what particular acts they can be punished for and to what extent. In case a person does something that is believed to be a lawful act, claiming that this act is unlawful after it was committed will violate human rights. Thus, if citizens do not know what acts can be committed and what cannot, it is impossible to inflict punishment.
Prohibiting enforcement of ex post facto laws is beneficial for the nation since it prevents the judicial system from acting unlawfully, making preferences towards some people and having prejudices towards others. In addition, if people are aware of what they are allowed and prohibited to do, they can choose whether to behave in accordance with the law. In this case, it will be absolutely lawful to punish them for committing a wrongful act. Moreover, citizens’ rights will not be violated. The cons of prohibiting ex post facto laws can be indicated only by looking into particular criminal cases and seeing whether ex post facto laws are applicable personally to them.
By definition, conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a criminal act in the future. There are many federal conspiracy statutes. One of them outlaws conspiracy to commit another criminal act while others prohibit conspiracy to engage in specific forms of proscribed conduct. Accused conspirators should be tried together, and the statements of one of them can be used against all others. Nevertheless, due to the unusual nature of the conspiracy, there are also exceptions from it. For example, no conspiracy can take place between people under the age of criminal responsibility. Conspiracy can be prosecuted when an overt act is committed.
An overt act of one of the co-conspirators is clear evidence of an inferred criminal intent, as opposed to a mere intention in the mind to commit a crime. It can be a step towards executing conspiracy. Therefore, an overt act is not necessarily a criminal act, but a deed that demonstrates a conspiracy in action. In cases of criminal conspiracy, an overt act needs to be proven so that people suspected in the crime could be convicted.
However, in some cases, an overt act is not required. For example, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the overt act element is not needed for drug conspiracy statutes. In addition, conspiracy in money laundering does not require an overt act either. Thus, conspiracies that threaten the government and national security do not need an overt act to punish conspirators, but only require substantial evidence that they plan to commit a crime in the future.
Homicide is the killing of one human being by another. Previously, under the common law of the US, killing a fetus was not murder since a fetus was not considered a human being. However, some states have changed this by defining fetal homicide, or feticide, as murder. It is in the public interest to make feticide a separate crime to kill a fetus since the law protects the rights and security of pregnant women. Nevertheless, there exists a conflict between fetal homicide laws and abortion rights. First of all, pro-abortion activists say that a pregnant woman needs to have a choice whether to give life to a baby or not. Therefore, she has the right to perform an abortion. However, while the fetus is recognized as a human being, she can be charged for fetal homicide in case she does an abortion, which violates her rights and freedom of choice. This fact creates a ground for thinking of what stage an unborn child is considered a human being whose life is protected by the government.
Three standards exist to determine whether a fetus is a “person” for the purposes of homicide law. First, the born-alive requirement means that punishment for homicide is applied to a child born alive. Namely, this is the fetus that is able to breathe and already has a heartbeat, pulsation of the umbilical cord, and voluntarily muscle movement. Second, the viability standard is referred to as a fetus that is able to survive outside the uterus. This standard depends on the child’s organ maturity, which is usually reached on the 26th week of pregnancy. Third, the conception standard means that the fetus needs to be protected by the law from the moment of its conception. What needs to be applied in the modern statutes is the viability standard since in case a fetus cannot exist separately from its mother, it can hardly be considered a human being. Only in case, it is able to survive after being separated from the womb, criminal laws should be applicable to the crimes against it.
West Virginia is one of the states that has a statute recognizing “an embryo or fetus as a distinct unborn victim of certain crimes of violence against a person, including homicide and manslaughter”. Many other states have similar laws, which are good for protecting human rights, but still, need improvement.